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A Secret Killer: Hep B in Fresno's Hmong Community

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver that can be spread by unprotected sex and sharing dirty needles. But for the immigrant Hmong community in Fresno, the most common transmission occurs from mother to child in birth. The disease can be prevented with a vaccine. But despite infection rates more than fifteen percent higher than the U.S. average, Hmong carriers refuse to see a doctor for that shot.
Fresno California can be a tough town. And resident Yeng Mua, is short, slow moving, soft spoken woman. But she says she always felt safe whenever she went out with her son Yia, even at night.
"He has a lot of talents. He was a pro," says Mua. "He was a four time kickboxing in the whole world."
At five foot seven, and just over one hundred fifty pounds, Yia Mua's best talent was beating his opponents senseless. Yet, despite the tough exterior, his mom says Yia was the polite, quiet and strong type. So when Yeng found her son doubled over the toilet, making all kinds of racket, she knew something was wrong.
"I see him vomiting blood…A lot he was vomiting blood," Mua says. "We went to the hospital…"
After two weeks of tests, Yia Mua was diagnosed with liver cancer spurred by Hepatitis B. He died six months later. Like one in six in the Fresno Hmong community, Mua contracted the disease, and didn't even know it.
Mohamed Sheik is a doctor with the University of California at San Francisco-Fresno. He released a study of Hep B rates in the Hmong Community earlier this month, and the crux of that research: Rates are way too high---17 %. And while other studies show the Asian-American community has higher than average infection rates, the Hmong
"Hmong people might be having more infections compared to the rest of the Asian population because they are more secluded and isolated community," says Sheik. "The majority of the patients with this disease don't have any symptoms. So that's the major issue."
The Hmong people began migrating en masse to Fresno in the 1970's, after the Vietnam War. Most are from the hills of Laos, and they brought with them cultural medicines and a distrust of western medicine. Sophia DeWitt oversees health initiatives at the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, a social service organization. She says despite educational efforts, including radio PSA's and large canvassing efforts, there is still a Hmong cultural reluctance to ask for medical help.
"They are seeking it out more than they used to," says DeWitt. "They are not seeking it out as much as they need to. If seventeen percent is likely to be Hep B positive, and most of them are not aware of their status, clearly more needs to be done."
DeWitt, and others, are also trying to marry the Hmong's cultural beliefs with traditional western medical care---by saying you can see a doctor, get immunized, and keep your folk medicines.
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